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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Catalan Statute

Well here in sunny Catalonia we don't have a fooball team of our own right now, so maybe that's why we chose this precise moment to hold a referendum about our future.

Now the first thing to get straight is that despite all the direst predictions, Spain is still here the morning after the big vote, and in one piece, I just touched the floor to prove it. Indeed 11 footballers (some of them Catalan) will also come to earth on German turf tonight just to graphically illustrate the point. So it does seem that some of the concerns raised in the coments to this post were well wide of the mark.

Some issues do, however, remain.

"Catalonians vote for sweeping new powers", reads the AP headline. Well this is not entirely the case. Most of the powers in the new statute are not in fact new. What the statute is, more than anything, is a consolidation of previously existing powers which had been accumulated in a ragbag fashion (in pacts with both PP and PSOE governments) during the 25 years since the last statute was introduced, and their elaboration in one single, symbolic, text. Nothing is going to change dramatically as a result of yesterday's vote.

Two changes seem to be being treated as having some importance:

a) A larger share of taxes raised in Catalonia will now be retained and administered locally.

b) Reference in the preamble to the statute to the fact that "many Catalans *feel* themselves to have a national identity".

On the 'national question' the wording is important, as is the fact that it appears in the preamble and not in the actual body of the text. The wording is framed in this way to offer some recognition to the fact that many Catalans feel themselves to belong to a nation (just like the Welsh and the Scottish do), but to do so without giving explicit nation status to Catalonia (this is likely to be a question which simply isn't going to go away). In this sense the text is perfectly compatible with the Spanish constitution which refers to the existence of three 'historic nationalities' (the Basque, the Galician, and the Catalan ones) without exactly clarifying what this expression actually means. In this sense the precise meaning has traditionally been left to interpretative decisions by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

On the taxes issue it should be borne in mind that some 33% of national income taxes are already retained in Catalonia (this was decided by the PP government of Aznar when it needed support in the Madrid parliament from the Catalan nationalist party CiU) and this figure will now be increased to 50%.

But before you run away with the idea that all this money will be something extra, it is worth pointing out that what the money is to be spent on is determined by the additional devolved responsibilities which also come with the statute, like more control of logistical infrastructure, train services and highways etc, and the administration of work permits for immigrants.

It is worth noting at this point that the original Basque statute effectively gives the Basque government 100% control over income taxes collected in their community and that Zapatero has already said he will offer other Spanish regions the same tax arrangement that Catalonia has just obtained. So in many ways, instead of representing a first step to break-up, all of this could be seen as a step on the road to a less centralised, more federal Spain, and one which offers complete recognition to it's national minorities.

But, as I said, there are remaining issues (like the football team). Interestingly, in many ways the statute could be interpreted as representing the first stage in a process, and not the end of a road.

As is well known, Zapatero is also battling it out with the PP on another front: his proposal to have 'talks' with Eta.

Now, in my humble opinion, the talks with Eta question is a side issue. What is really important is the ending of terrorist violence in Spain. This ending of violence will also have another aspect, since it will bring the 'Basque question' back onto the front page of the political agenda, thus rescuing it from the limbo where it has effectively been kept by 25 years of persisitent violence. So the real talks, the important ones, won't be with Eta, but with the Basque political parties, in an attempt to find a final and definitive end to the issue.

And guess what, any final settlement to the Basque issue will almost certainly involve changes to the Spanish constitution. Re-enter Esquerra Republicana (ERC) by the side door.

Essentially this statute has become such a watered-down document due to the real problem of making it fit within the present terms of the constitution at a time when the PP vehemently refuses to play ball, and makes any constitutional change to accommodate the 'new Spanish realities' virtually impossible.

But again, guess what, things do sometimes change. Zapatero has Rajoy 'arinconado' (cornered), like the triumphant matador he looks gleefully in the direction of Manuel Marin (the speaker in the Spanish parliament) during their regular debates to see if he gets to cut the ear now or later.

On their present course the PP is headed for almost certain electoral defeat, and Zapatero is leveraging this for all he's worth, steering them continuously straight back onto their present course. So he is spinning this one out. The talks with Eta will be minimal until after the next election, keeping his groggy opponent well contained against the ropes, and my guess is that little progress will be made towards a Basque political solution during this time.

But after the elections, well, after the elections..... things will almost certainly change. Rajoy will almost certainly go for one, and the PP will alter its disastrous course. Which means of course that it will be possible to talk, and even talk about constitutional changes. What most Spanish voters want is the Basque issue solving definitively, and the PP won't be able to stand in the way of this forever. So, one more time, enter ERC through sidedoor.

Now what am I talking about? Well I imagine that the recent behaviour of ERC has left many external observers feeling a little perplexed. They propose a new statute, get it through the Madrid parliament, then effectively resign from the Catalan government and urge people to vote against. My own view is that all this is a bit tongue in cheek. Most ERC voters support the new statute pragmatically, as being better than the last one, and most ERC members share that view. The thing is, the party, as a party, has been simply reserving its position, reserving it for what comes next, the second course.

Basically there will now be elections soon here in Catalonia, probably in September as the current socialist government doesn't have anything approaching a working majority. And after the elections will come the inevitable negotiating and pacts (Catalonia is above all a country of pacts). Now the most probable outcome of these negotiations, as far as I can see, is a repeat of the earlier 'tripartit', that is the socialists will once more need to share the government with ERC. So the thing is, ERC had to vote no to this statute to be in any credible position to demand yet more changes (as I say this time in all probability constitutional ones), and they will be doing this in a climate which, after the next Spanish national elections, may make such changes possible.

So who knows, maybe next time we have a world cup there actually will be a Catalan squad participating, come'on Cesc, come'on Puyol, come'on Iniesta, come'on Xavi.